College Game Plan

Coder, 19, Builds Chatbot That Fights Parking Tickets

When Stanford University student Joshua Browder began accumulating numerous parking tickets in London for minor violations last year, he realized he needed to do something.

“After the fourth ticket, my parents said to me, ‘You’re on your own. We’re not going to help you anymore,’” the Britain native told NBC News.

Not wanting to pay, and upset with “local governments trying to get away with murder,” the computer science and economics student wrote an appeal letter. To his, and his parents', surprise, it worked.

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Browder, 19, then offered to help family and friends challenge their tickets. After success with their appeals too, he created DoNotPay, an online chatbot that appeals parking tickets for free by using artificial intelligence.

Browder calls the bot, which asks users a series of questions in chat format to gather information for appeals, "the world's first robot lawyer." It launched in the U.K. last fall and arrived in New York in April and has reversed a whopping 160,000 of 250,000 tickets since — 64 percent.

Browder's mother Melanie told NBC News that growing up, her son “didn’t accept no as an answer unless you explained right through.”

Since a young age, she said, he has worked on projects beyond his years.

“He was always trying to be something,” Melanie Browder said.

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And Browder has a long track record of just that. After teaching himself to code as a teenager, he approached 20 top human-rights organizations and offered to create apps for them for free.

Although DoNotPay was launched by Browder’s freshman year of college, he said the site did not work very well at first, and auditing a Stanford machine learning class gave him the techniques to scale up.

“It really was mind-blowing how powerful these techniques are,” Browder said. “It’s amazing how you can get a computer to understand things that are much more complicated.”

Joshua Browder John Liu / John Liu

Browder says he’s learning a lot at Stanford, especially through writing essays, which have improved communication skills that have been necessary in attracting public attention.

“Even if you have the best product, if nobody knows about it, then it won’t work,” he said.

It took months for DoNotPay to gain popularity, but it slow start gave the college student some time to enjoy his freshman year. Once the site acquired national attention in the U.K., Browder typically spent all day on schoolwork and then focused on the website from around 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. Going forward, he said, dedicating time for himself will be a priority.

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“Ultimately, everything else doesn’t work if you don’t have some sort of free time,” he said.

Despite its success, he said the site will continue to run for free as a public service. Since Browder was little, his mom said he has always looked to help somehow, assisting in fundraisers at school and putting on productions to raise money for charity.

“People who can’t afford these tickets are some of the most vulnerable in society,” Browder said. “[The fines] are disproportionate to what the crime was, so charging on top of that just seems wrong.”

Browder is now looking to give back on an even larger global scale by applying the technology to help Syrian refugees apply for asylum.

“I have so many ideas — it’s such a shame to be limited by time,” Browder said.